Suing the CIA over PDB info

What we do is secret - By Bill Forman
For UC Davis prof Larry Berman, taking the Central Intelligence Agency to court is a no-brainer

Suing the CIA was the last thing on Larry Berman’s mind when he first ventured into the world of academia. “Look, no one wants to sue your own government or, in this case, the CIA,” said the 54-year-old UC Davis professor, whose case against the agency goes to U.S. District Court here in Sacramento on June 1.

As a respected Vietnam War scholar--his book, Lyndon Johnson’s War: The Road to Stalemate in Vietnam is a seminal text on presidential deliberations at the height of a war--Berman exhausted all other avenues to accessing President’s Daily Briefs (PDBs) from the era. “When my last Freedom of Information Act request was denied, I was informed that the only action I had left was to seek judicial remedy, and that’s what I’m doing,” explained Berman. “Why the CIA is holding on to this is beyond me.”

It’s also beyond Bill Moyers, the famed journalist who earlier this month filed a supporting declaration on Berman’s behalf. In the declaration, Moyers explains how, as special assistant to President Johnson from 1963 until 1967, he had the frequent opportunity to review PDBs from the era and sees “no reasons why information that was sensitive at the time should not [be] reviewed and considered for public release today.”

CIA public-affairs officer Tom Crispell told SN&R it’s against policy to comment on pending litigation, but a 40-page declaration by CIA officer Terry Buroker lays out the agency’s concerns. Referring to PDBs as “the most highly selective compendium of the most important intelligence available to the U.S. Intelligence community,” Buroker argues that “the disclosure of the specific information in any individual edition of the PDB reasonably could be expected to result in exceptionally grave damage to national security.”

Berman, however, argues that a number of PDBs already have been released, with no recognizable effect on national security. His declaration cites a series of 10 historical PDBs from the Johnson era that were officially (and, from the CIA’s point of view, “improperly”) declassified. A review of these documents suggests that--apart from the occasional black Magic Marker redacting of names and other specifics--their contents are surely of more use to historians than official enemies of the state.

One PDB, for instance, offers an update on the Indonesian head of state’s health: “Despite Sukarno’s long-standing kidney ailment, for which he delays proper treatment, he has seemed quite chipper lately.” There is little here to support former White House spokesman Ari Fleisher’s description of the PDB as “the most highly sensitized classified document in the government.”

Although the President’s Daily Brief has been around since the Kennedy era, it first found its way onto front pages with the release of the notorious “Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US” briefing. Written prior to 9/11 and released to the public in April of last year, the warning was dismissed by then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice as a “mostly historical” document, albeit one the administration fought to withhold from historians, press and public at large.

“It’s hard to believe that that’s the crown jewel of intelligence,” commented Berman, when asked about Vice President Dick Cheney’s reference to PDBs as “the family jewels” in a Fox News appearance. “Many members of the 9/11 Commission were astounded that, after a two-year battle to get this document, that this is what they saw,” said Berman. “It was hardly worth the fight. And it’s really very difficult to believe--if this is the mostly highly sensitized classified document in government, they’re watching CNN too much.”

Thomas Blanton, president of the National Security Archive (NSA), argues that President George W. Bush’s own administration recently identified the PDB as an inherently flawed document. Indeed, the Robb-Silberman commission on weapons of mass destruction, which was appointed a year ago by the president to look into intelligence flaws, makes the case in its findings, presented to Bush on March 31.

“They not only reviewed all the PDBs that had Iraq information in them before the Iraq war, but they also talked to the authors of the PDBs who actually wrote those items,” said Blanton, whose organization boasts the world’s largest nongovernmental library of declassified documents. “And they concluded that the President’s Daily Briefs to Bush distorted the actual intelligence the community had on Iraq and weapons of mass destruction; because the premium was on short snappy articles with grabby headlines to keep the reader’s attention, the briefs actually overstated the threat.”

Indeed, the report’s cover page lists four bullet-point recommendations. Under the heading “Rethink the President’s Daily Brief,” it states simply: “The daily intelligence briefings given to you before the Iraq war were flawed. Through attention-grabbing headlines and repetition of questionable data, these briefings overstated the case that Iraq was rebuilding its WMD programs.”

“Policymakers are sometimes surprised to find that longer, in-depth intelligence reporting provides a different view from that conveyed by the PDB,” explains one senior intelligence officer cited in the report, which decries the resulting “drumbeat of incremental 'hot news’ articles.”

Concludes the commission: “The PDB staff tends to focus on today’s hot national security issues, or on issues that attracted the President’s interest the last time they came.”

In a post-Valerie Plame landscape, critics may be more inclined to attribute the Bush administration’s preoccupation with secrecy to fears of personal political embarrassment rather than concerns with national-security matters. Indeed, Berman’s struggle to access vintage PDBs has become an uphill battle in an era when the Patriot Act appears to be eclipsing what remains of the Freedom of Information Act.

Interestingly, one of the CIA’s main arguments in defense of withholding PDBs is the claim of executive privilege; the documents, they contend, are part of the presidential decision-making process.

Clearly, that is very much the case these days. But how does it apply when the documents Berman is seeking are 30 years old?

“In certain ways,” said Blanton, “maybe what’s most amazing is that here you have the CIA claiming presidential privilege over LBJ--wow!”

News&features - May 26, 2005


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